Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why are so many reputed journalists politically so biased?

I carry this almost saintly belief that journalists are like teachers, informing us about developments, helping us understand them, and showing us the truth. They are people with strong ethics and high standards. Wikipedia talks of “truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability” in the context of journalism. A political journalist must be fair and unbiased, applauding the good, and criticizing the bad work of a politician or a party. But in India today, some of our most reputed journalists are shattering this basic tenet of journalistic ethics. They are politically aligned and biased in reporting.

I am most disappointed with Swapan Dasgupta. I always regarded him as one of India’s foremost journalists. He is one who effortlessly straddles both print and TV. I find his arguments engaging, and I like his dignified conduct, always allowing others to finish their talk, never getting personal or abusive. Unfortunately, he is not objective. I have always seen him singing paeans of Narendra Modi. It doesn’t matter what the debate is about, he will always promote or defend Modi. I agree being pro-Modi is his birthright, but its equally the birthright of his followers that he declare his bias upfront, and not pretend to be a mere “senior journalist”. I guess he knows that if did in fact do that, he would stop being the revered journalist that he is. So he plays along, almost “cheating” his followers. His twitter description “Politically conservative; socially Anglophile; emotionally in 1930s” doesn’t reveal his bias either.

The BJP is popular with many such senior journalists. One wonders if this is a genuine affection for the party, or something else. Ashok Malik (“Twitter agnostic, trying to develop faith. Otherwise a news columnist”), Minhaz Merchant (“Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Media group chairman and editor”), MJ Akbar, Prabhu Chawla (“Editorial Director, The New Indian Express and The Sunday Standard”) or Tavleen Singh (simply “columnist”) are all big names in journalism, but unfortunately, they cannot be called objective. While the BJP has the larger share, the Congress has its own band of supportive journos. Kumar Ketkar is one such.

I actually appreciate the Chandan Mitras of the world because they have chosen to join a party. When they take their party’s line, there is no confusion in the minds of the reader or viewer. What I mind is when senior journalists do not inform us about their political interests.

It’s the same with our TV anchors. Before a topic is announced, one knows what their views will be. Then there is this other way by which TV anchors play games. They set up panels that suit their point of view, and give more air time to those who speak their type of language. Here is how a famous pro-BJP anchor typically constitutes his panel: One member from the Congress, one from the BJP, one from Shiv Sena, one from SAD, one from BJD and one journalist (typically biased) or activist (usually anti government). And then he gives everyone the same time to speak (see how fair he is)! This channel perhaps draws inspiration from Fox News which calls itself “fair and balanced” but who Larry King accused of being “a Republican brand”. Usually however, the media in advanced countries plays a far more responsible role. In the UK recently, a panel on Sky News had one MP each from the Conservatives, Lib Dems (so two from government) and Labor parties, reflecting the position in their Parliament, and hence the last measured public opinion. They also had a journo who was truly independent.

Fortunately for us, there are many journalists who remain proudly unbiased. Foremost is Shekhar Gupta, who is my favorite. I have always seen him argue for or against an issue, never a particular party or politician. My second favorite is Barkha Dutt, who firstly, conducts her show with extreme decency, allowing everyone to speak and never allowing anyone to abuse, and secondly never takes a side that she doesn’t genuinely believe in. Then Vinod Mehta, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyer, Siddharth Varadarajan (Hindu), Vir Das (he hardly ever writes), Rajdeep Sardesai, Prannoy Roy (whenever he does make an appearance), Karan Thapar are all fair and unbiased, while still retaining their razor sharp demeanour.

I have this feeling that TV audiences have seen through this deceit. That’s why English news channels viewership has fallen off the cliff in the last two years. Not that the viewership numbers were very high to begin with, what is left today is just a quarter of that. English TV news viewers are sticking to morning newspapers, which have done a far far better job of fair and unbiased reporting.

Media is considered the fourth pillar of a democracy. If media cannot remain honest, and apolitical, then democracy will crumble. If all communication we get from these news pundits is tainted, then how do we separate right from wrong? It’s a serious problem.

One last point. If these seasoned journalists have political biases, that’s perfectly fine. Like I said earlier, its their right. But then, they should become bloggers. By definition, bloggers express their personal – even biased –  views, and seek out followers who agree with them. But when journos appear on mass media, they are duty bound to be unbiased and apolitical.

The real truth is that some of our seniormost, most respected journalists are making a mockery of their trade, harming our democracy even more than some of our politicians do. Such biased, colored balderdash has to stop….

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